Two months after the Denver school board turned down a charter school focused on Black students, the school won an appeal before the State Board of Education.
The 5280 Freedom School was one of three elementary charter schools whose applications were denied by the Denver school board in June but the only school to appeal. After hearing arguments from both sides Wednesday, the charter-friendly State Board sided with the 5280 Freedom School in a 5-2 vote, which will force Denver to reconsider its denial.
State Board members were unconvinced by Denver Public Schools’ argument that the 5280 Freedom School would struggle to attract enough students and balance its budget. Elementary school enrollment in Denver is shrinking, and the district pointed out that 11 charter schools have closed in the past four years, in large part because of a lack of students. Once fertile ground for charter schools, Denver has become less hospitable politically as well.
But State Board members said it was unfair to assume the 5280 Freedom School would meet the same fate. “It seems unfair to hold this would-be operator responsible for challenges that another operator experienced,” Democratic board member Rebecca McClellan said.
McClellan joined Democrat Angelika Schroeder and the three Republican board members in voting in favor of the 5280 Freedom School. Though they voted yes, Republicans Joyce Rankin and Steve Durham questioned the school’s proposed focus on culturally relevant curriculum and its mission to combat anti-Black racism in Denver Public Schools.
“I may disagree with many of the premises of this school,” Durham said. But, he added, “what schools like this do is at least they’re innovative.”
The 5280 Freedom School is proposing to open in central Denver in the fall of 2023 with up to 52 students in kindergarten and first grade. The school plans to add grades each year until it reaches 300 students, a benchmark the district argued will be hard to achieve.
Founder Branta Lockett disagrees. A former Denver teacher, she and others have run a successful summer camp focused on the well-being of Black children, teaching them about Black history, African drumming, poetry, nutrition, and more. Families loved the camp so much they asked that the program become a year-round school, Lockett said.
“A reason our school is so needed is that DPS has failed Black students and other marginalized students over time,” Lockett said. She pointed to several examples, including the disproportionate discipline of Black students and the under-identification of Black students as gifted.
The Denver school board has acknowledged that the district has served its Black students more poorly than its white students, and has ordered its schools to do better. But wide disparities still exist. State standardized test scores released Wednesday reveal that Denver has the largest gap between the scores of white and Black students in the entire state.
“This school being unique in centering the experiences of Black students, it takes us away from trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” McClellan said. “It gives students and families a chance to try something they think will work better.”
The Denver school board could reject the 5280 Freedom School again. The charter school could appeal again too. A second State Board decision would be final.
This is the second time in two years that the State Board has overturned a charter school decision by the Denver school board. In 2020, the State Board ordered Denver to reconsider its decision to delay the opening of a new high school in the DSST charter network. Upon reconsideration, the Denver board voted unanimously to allow the school to open sooner.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.